Setting a High Bar for Mentorship Success
Good mentors develop knowledge and skills while great ones build the confidence that allows a mentee to rise all the way to the top. That gives Cotton & Company real estate marketing agency founder Stephann Cotton near G.O.A.T. status in the mentoring world, as his own protégée, Laurie Andrews, takes over as Cotton & Company President and he transitions to CEO.
The Road to Self-Driven Success
Laurie Andrews was active in the Future Business Leaders of America and participated in the Cooperative Business Education (CBE) program at Martin County High School, a program that included morning academics and afternoon on-the-job training. It was there that she got her start in advertising, working alongside the company’s rising VP, Stephann Cotton. After getting her Series 7 broker’s license, marrying, and starting a family, she decided that the desk-bound finance world was simply too dull. Luckily, she knew just where to look for a challenge. Stephann Cotton was now five years into running his own luxury real estate marketing agency, which was all about results. The two had the same energy and ethics, and it was all systems go.
“My first day, I was on a photoshoot at Island Dunes on Hutchinson Island,” recalls Laurie. “My life went from boring to exciting overnight…no two days have ever been the same since.”
How Respect – and a Long Rope – Make Mentorships Work
A self-starter and a “doer,” Laurie is also a results-driven speed learner whose M.O. is to dive right in and makes things happen. In the pre-digital days, when the company needed color renderings of a property and price quotes were crazy high, she had the drawings printed out in black and white, took them home, and used watercolors to fill them in. “Scan these and we’ve got color,” she told her team.
Other times, she used family members as models, staged condominiums so they would sell faster, and hired a Facebook pro to get clients up to speed when most marketers had yet to realize its importance to businesses. “Stephann never stopped me from making decisions like that,” she says of their relationship of mutual respect. “We always maintained open communication, dealt with conflicts head-on, and avoided taking things personally.”
When it came to teamwork, Stephann was the big-idea person and Laurie was the one who worked out the details. “That allowed him to be conceptual without being restrained,” she notes. When 20-some years ago Stephann decided that an in-house magazine with a third-party voice would have far more impact than a sales brochure (a novel idea back then), Laurie started converting collateral with the notion that buyers always chose where they would live before they decided exactly what to live in.
The story-telling glossy publication extolled the perks of a location, explained regional tax benefits, and moved the company from push to pull messaging overnight. Today, the concept has easily rolled into digital “content marketing,” which informs, educates, and solves problems. In fact, the duo’s fundamental focus on “thinking like the buyers” and delivering what a developer needs to attract them has seen the company through various business cycles, complex technological advances, and even a market crash.
Why Mastering Buyer Psychology Should Start with the Local Sales Team
What do buyers want most when they may not be quite ready to buy? It depends on the circumstances, but nothing illustrates the importance of the “What’s In It for Me Factor” (WIFM) factor more than when Stephann and Laurie were brought in to sell off Lehman Brothers’ assets. The duo was on a plane headed to New York when the company collapsed, and they didn’t even know who would be meeting with them. In the end, their handling of projects in San Diego, Los Angeles, and Florida got buyers to jump in, and in an unforeseen twist, their success kept Cotton & Company solid during the downturn.
Explains Laurie, “No matter what, everyone wants to buy at the right time; only one guy buys at the bottom. We were tasked with setting the market value for the properties, so we set a price that was a good value and said, ‘no negotiating, period.’ That sent the message that the price had reached the bottom and buyers jumped in. Five years later, when the value of the property doubled, they were glad they did.”
Thinking like a buyer also paid off in Poland, when the largest developer in the country hired Cotton & Company to help them market homes the American way. The mentor and mentee took turns flying back and forth, working with translators 100% of the time. One challenge in the former communist nation was winning trust, another was that one of the developments was in the countryside, and in Poland, proximity to public transportation to the city was paramount.
“What looked like a dream community to an American appeared difficult to access to Poles,” says Laurie. “Even the sales team was reluctant to go show the property because fuel costs were so high at the time. We recommended the developer allow a fuel stipend for staff and we created a destination grand opening that we promoted for ‘Life Elevated.’ Our event included musicians, food, and cultural events; and thousands came out to see the community homes.” After six months of tag-teaming the project, Laurie and Stephann tripled the developer’s sales volumes with all its properties.
Always keeping the clients’ needs in mind extends to every aspect of what Cotton & Company does, stresses Laurie, who has been involved in the over 1,700 company projects in which she and Stephann tackled a range of obstacles. That’s why years ago, she championed the idea that the company stops vying for advertising and marketing “vanity awards.” It took a lot of time to prepare entries and there were zero benefits to the client. “When we stopped entering contests, no one noticed,” comments Laurie. “We eventually broke up the dozens of award statues we had and repurposed them into holiday crafts that were given away at a company party.”
Reinventing Mentorships: It Takes a Team
A quote on Laurie’s desktop reads: “Team captains never wait to be named captain before they start leading.” Her style has always been to be prepared, lead by example, pull everyone in, and ignore titles. While becoming a principal ten years ago was a welcome recognition of her lifelong investment in the company, “a title like CMO—or even president—is more about garnering the respect of outsiders and signaling that you can get things accomplished than it is about in-house practicality,” she says.
However, what she did find practical throughout her career was setting the necessary boundaries to raise a family while doing her job. Despite working early morning and late evening hours, she never missed a school event, conference, or game because everyone knew that once a family event was on her calendar, it was set in concrete. “The job would get done when I got back to it, and I was never embarrassed about making that clear,” she notes.
Juggling both family and career can be done with efficiency and organizational skills, as her success on both fronts is a testament. One of her children is a Tech Sergeant in the Air Force, another is on the way to veterinary school and the third is an accomplished videographer who works with Cotton & Company on various projects.
But for all that to recur in today’s fast-paced business world, you need both a personal and a group approach to mentorship, so that more than one person can step in and step up. “Our team members blur lines all the time; you learn by jumping in and taking on new challenges,” says Laurie.
To keep her staff of 30-plus specialists up-to-the-minute and motivated, she works with senior management closely to be sure they mentor their individual teams and use peer review groups for feedback. “You can learn about analytics and how to bring buyers through funnels in a class; technology is just a tool,” comments Laurie. “The hardest thing to learn is how to think like the client, and you can only do that over time. There’s no replacement for learning through daily on-the-job experiences, where the only limitation is a persons’ interest. That’s why I never say someone is too inexperienced or over-their-head to be part of something.”
Laurie is the “big idea” person now, and while it’s yet another personal challenge for her, it doesn’t mean that anything will change in how the company operates and delivers. After all, she already has a team that was trained to focus on results, and Stephann will still be there to guide her, while he concentrates on business development, strategic planning, and key client consulting. As the dynamic duo at the heart of Team Cotton, the pair will continue their extended approach to mentoring, which ensures that the clients’ needs always come first.